Cigar Wars: As the Cuban Embargo Fizzles, the Battle for Stogies Smolders
Jorge Padrón stands watch over his family's farm, Villa Vieja, on the outskirts of Estelí.
Michael E. Miller
True to its name, Nicaragua's Puro Humo cigar festival is hazy as hell. The smoke is thick enough to slice. Flames flicker and fade in the darkness. Figures drift through the fumes. Grinning businessmen gnaw on smoldering cigars. Bow-tied waiters scurry in the half-light. And beautiful women in sequined dresses shimmer in the smog like oracles of Delphi.
Tonight, their prophecy couldn't be more positive.
"Tobacco production has surpassed sheer industry, transforming the entire way of life here in this part of Nicaragua," a female emcee in a tight black dress tells the crowd. "Tonight, we would like to proclaim to the whole world that we are now number one in the global tobacco industry!"
The crowd bursts into applause. Glasses full of Flor de Caña rum clink like castanets. A portly man with thick glasses and an even thicker mustache waddles to center stage. Omar Halleslevens was once a Marxist guerrilla during the country's bloody civil war. Now he is Nicaragua's vice president, second only to longtime leader Daniel Ortega.
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Halleslevens hands glass statuettes one by one to Nicaragua's top cigar makers: Jorge Padrón, Nestor Plasencia, Gilberto Oliva, A.J. Fernandez. Some of them have spent decades building the country's cigar industry. Others are relative newcomers. But all of them are Cuban exiles — and most now run their Nicaraguan factories from South Florida, which has become the de facto American home base of a multibillion-dollar industry.
"We have relied on the experience of Cubans since the very beginning," Halleslevens will say after the ceremony. "They have played a crucial role."
This is the second half of a two-part series. Read the first half here: "Up in Smoke."
But Nicaragua's cigar boom is due to more than just Cuban exiles. It's because of the embargo against their homeland. For 50 years, the U.S. blockade has shut off the world's largest cigar market from the island most famous for making them. In the process, it has jump-started cigar industries across the Caribbean, from Honduras to the Dominican Republic to Nicaragua, where cigars have gone from laughingstock to highly lauded in just a couple of crop cycles.
Inside Managua's Crown Plaza Hotel, however, the cloud hovering over everyone's head tonight is full of as much uncertainty as smoke. A month earlier, Barack Obama announced he was restoring the United States' diplomatic ties with Cuba. Since then, the two countries have held high-level talks about normalizing relations. After half a century, the embargo's days are numbered.
When the embargo falls, Cuban stogies will finally flood into the United States. Cigar makers around the Caribbean will feel the burn from the new competition, and Miami's Cuban exiles will surely suffer as gringos snap up the exotic socialist stogies.
In fact, the fight for your humidor has already begun. For the past decade, the Cuban government has gone after Cuban-American cigar makers in preparation for this day, filing lawsuits and snatching trademarks. Now there are also rumors of $50 billion hostile corporate takeovers and accusations that the Cuban government is flouting the embargo by funneling support to its own cigar makers in Nicaragua.
And then, of course, there are old grudges that will soon be unleashed. For more than 50 years, the trade ban has frozen fierce legal fights over stolen tobacco farms and secret assassinations. Now that the diplomatic deep freeze is thawing, those battles will begin anew.
"This is about more than cigars," says Frank Herrera, a Cuban-American lawyer who represents many Miami cigar makers in their ongoing clashes with the Castros. "This is really about principle.
"You stole our country and tortured our families," he says to the regime. "Now you have the balls to come after us in court? Fuck you. We're going to defend ourselves."
A roller adds a final, flavorful layer of tobacco to cigars at A.J. Fernandez's factory.
Michael E. Miller
Jorge Padrón stands on the edge of a tobacco field, surveying his kingdom of dirt. Dark furrows run into the distance, where they erupt into the lush mountains that ring Estelí, Nicaragua, like a jagged crown. In their troughs, thousands of tiny tobacco plants stand silently at attention like an army of toy soldiers.
For Jorge, the son of famed cigar maker José Orlando Padrón and the de facto prince of this thriving tobacco town, the six-inch sprouts are fresh recruits for a battle that's about to begin. By the time these tobacco sprigs are transformed into cigars, the U.S. embargo against Cuba will likely have fallen. For the first time, Cuban-Americans like the Padróns will have to compete in the States against stogies from Cuba.
The end of the embargo is sure to shake up the selection at your neighborhood cigar shop. But it could also bring big changes to Estelí, a boomtown that has benefited from the blockade like no other.
"My dad did all the hard work," Jorge says, staring at the seedlings. "My job is just not to fuck it up."
Estelí is almost a thousand miles across the Caribbean from Havana, but the two cities are linked by time and tobacco. When Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban capital on New Year's Day 1959, he set into motion a great exodus of cigar makers who would eventually mold Estelí into a cigar mecca. However, ripples from the fizzling embargo are already reverberating across the sea.
Three hours north of the capital of Managua, Estelí is a low-slung city of tobacco farms and cigar factories. When José Orlando Padrón arrived in 1967 at the invitation of dictator Anastasio Somoza, Estelí was a town of only a few thousand people. Now it's a city of 120,000, as many as 20,000 of whom are directly employed by the cigar industry.
Estelí's secret is its earth. Over the centuries, sulfurous volcanic soil has washed off the mountains and accumulated in the valley like natural fertilizer. Today, some of the world's greatest tobacco farms lie on the edge of the city. Crews of sun-scorched young men prune the tobacco plants that rise from the rich loam. The leaves are dried, rehydrated with various mojos — secret sauces whose recipes are jealously guarded by and passed down through generations — and layered into giant piles, called pilones, to ferment. After months of curing, the tobacco leaves are dried again and ready to be rolled into cigars.
Inside the Padrón factory, scores of workers, mostly women, produce up to 30,000 smokes per day. With lightning-quick hands, they fold filler leaves inside sticky binders and then swaddle the stogies in paper-thin wrapper leaves. After aging in a humidor for several months, the cigars receive paper rings and are packaged for shipping overseas.
Aside from downturns during the civil war and the short-lived U.S. embargo against Nicaragua, the Padróns' cigar operations have hardly changed in the past 45 years. What has evolved, however, is the competition.
If José Padrón is, as he likes to say, Nicaragua's Christopher Columbus of tobacco, he's been followed to the New World by several waves of cigar conquistadors. The first were fellow Cubans who, like Padrón, fled the island after Castro confiscated their farms. Gilberto Oliva traveled from Honduras to Panama to Mexico to the Philippines in search of the second Cuba before settling in Estelí in the 1970s. (Like most of Estelí's Cuban cigar dynasties, Oliva Cigars is run out of South Florida, with offices in Hialeah.) Next came Nestor Plasencia, another Cuban who has made cigars for some of the world's biggest brands, including Rocky Patel.
The international cigar boom of the 1990s brought to Estelí a second wave of Cuban exiles, less steeped in tobacco history but eager to buy in to the burning-hot business. Among them was José "Pepe" Montagne, a handsome Miami transplant whose grandfather had grown tobacco in Cuba and whose father had been imprisoned and tortured by the Castro regime.
Cubans were also arriving in Estelí straight from the island. The cigar boom coincided with Cuba's "Special Period," a decade of austerity following the Soviet Union's collapse. Cuba tried to ramp up its tobacco production to meet rocketing demand, but suffered setbacks such as mold-ravaged crops and shoddily rolled cigars.
Some cigar makers received permission to work in Nicaragua, including Ismael Fernandez, scion of a cigar family from Pinar del Río. He arrived in Estelí in 1997, and a decade later his son A.J. followed.
Today, A.J. Fernandez is one of the biggest names in the business. At just 35 years old, he has prematurely salt-and-pepper hair and a no-nonsense attitude. (He refused to accept an award at the Puro Humo festival, saying, "No me gusta el show.") In less than a decade, he has gone from tinkering with cigars to running a huge factory that churns out more than "12 million stogies per year. His rapid rise has won him both admirers and critics, and financed a palatial complex in a neighborhood of Estelí dubbed "Little Hialeah" for its ties to Miami.
Some of the most recent arrivals on the Nicaraguan cigar scene, however, have been gringos. Skip Martin is a portly Texan who talks fast and drives slow. He began smoking cigars in the Navy, where he served as a nuclear engineer aboard an atomic submarine. Seamen would gather on the bridge and spark up as the sub cruised into port.
After the military, Martin put his genius to work selling a computer patent to Xerox. With a modest fortune, he immersed himself in his true love: cigars. He moved to Estelí four years ago and recently opened his own small factory. Martin's company, RoMa Craft Tobac, produces puros strong enough to make most cigar aficionados cough. One is shaped, fittingly, like a torpedo.
Martin has helped bring 21st-century marketing to Estelí's old-school industry. He posts snapshots of his smokes on Instagram and Twitter, where he has a cult following.
In the southern colonial city of Granada, Mombacho Cigars is another outsider upending the industry. Founded in 2006 by a pair of Canadians as they backpacked through Central America, Mombacho recently moved in to a colonial mansion retrofitted with high-tech humidors and a rooftop view of the company's namesake volcano.
Martin compares this moment in Nicaraguan cigar making to the craft beer movement in the States. A copious supply of quality tobacco and a low barrier to entry enable cigar makers like him and Mombacho to experiment like never before.
"Nobody used to think that Nicaragua was a good place to make cigars. They were too strong, too rough," Martin says. "Now everybody realizes they are the best in the world."
But Estelí's growing reputation won't inoculate it against the end of the embargo. Martin admits the increased competition will shake up the industry, even for outsiders like him.
"People who spend a lot of money on cigars are initially going to go, 'Oh, the forbidden fruit,' " he says. "Pretty soon, there are going to be a lot of American judges with Cubans sticking out of their pockets."
Cigar maker Benny Gomez lost a trademark battle with the Cuban government.
Michael E. Miller
Pepe Montagne will always remember July 30, 2009, as the day he tried to buy off the Cuban government.
For the better part of a decade, Montagne had fought the communists in one American court after another — all over cigars. He had fled Cuba as a young man, founded a cigar company in Miami, opened a factory in Nicaragua, and named his stogies Guantanamera. Then everything had gone to hell.
Habanos S.A., the Cuban government's state-run cigar monopoly, had sued to stop Montagne from registering the name. Fidel Castro had sent his top lawyers after Pepe.
Now, seven years later, Montagne sat in a K Street law office in Washington, D.C., and watched his attorneys depose one of the men most responsible for his suffering: Manuel García Morejón, Habanos' vice president of marketing.
Morejón had a chubby face, wireless glasses, and a gold Rolex and was eager to see the Capitol, which was normally off-limits to Cuban travelers. When the hearing broke for lunch, Montagne approached Morejón.
"Listen, let's do some business," Pepe said. "I'll cut you a check for $5 million. Just make this bullshit stop."
"I could never do that," Morejón scoffed. "I am a faithful servant of the Revolution!"
A year later, he would be behind bars for corruption.
Arrests. Espionage. Even assassinations. The strange world of Cuban cigar litigation reads more like a spy novel than a court docket. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government has gone after scores of American cigar makers or vendors for everything from allegedly stealing tobacco seeds to copying cigar labels. Many, like Montagne, were Cuban exiles who had fled to Miami only to find themselves dragged to court by the very regime they thought they had escaped.
This not-so-cold cigar war doesn't stop there, however. Cuban exiles have pending claims for tobacco farms expropriated by the Castros. And the Cuban government still stands accused of killing scores of political enemies during and after the revolution. As one of the few profitable industries on the island, Habanos has been hit with $4 billion in wrongful-death lawsuits tied to those murders.
In recent years, the Cuban government has partnered with foreign corporations to prop up its tobacco production and protect itself in court. With the embargo winding down, however, all of these legal battles could soon come to a head, potentially stubbing out any hope for rapprochement between the rivals.
"When the embargo ends, the lawsuits are going to fly," says Herrera, Montagne's lawyer. "The Cuban government has all the money, attorneys, and power in the world. Some of these little cigar guys are going to get blown out of the water."
The smoldering legal standoff can be traced back to the mid-1990s. On February 24, 1996, two Brothers to the Rescue planes dropping anti-Castro leaflets were shot down by Cuban fighter jets. Two weeks later, Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act — commonly known as the Helms-Burton Act — strengthening the embargo.
President Clinton signed the bill into law. Months earlier, however, he had quietly undermined the embargo by authorizing an exception allowing the United States and Cuba to register trademarks in each other's territory.
Even as Congress was doubling down on the embargo, Cuba was preparing for the blockade's eventual demise. The country began registering its cigars in U.S. trademark courts, including brands taken from families during the revolution. The embargo prevented Cuba from selling these cigars in the States, but thanks to the exception, the embargo couldn't keep Cuba from registering its intellectual property.
Things got messy in a hurry. In 1997, Habanos sued to stop the Swedish-owned company General Cigar from using the name of Fidel's favorite brand, Cohiba, in the United States. (The case is still ongoing, with the Cuban government winning the latest round.) Two years later, Congress passed another law — dubbed the Bacardi Act because of the rum company's role in crafting the bill — that denied Cuba trademark protection for brands expropriated after the revolution. That set off another colossal battle between Bacardi and Cuba over the American trademark for Havana Club rum. (That one is also ongoing.)
By 2000, however, Habanos was in bad shape. The Nineties cigar bubble had burst, slashing Cuba's third largest export. Both the country and its cigar industry were desperately in need of capital. In stepped Altadis, one of the world's biggest cigar companies. For $477 million, the French-Spanish conglomerate received a 50 percent stake in Habanos.
"It was a smart move," says Gordon Mott, senior contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado. "It clearly helped the Cubans. They were emerging from the quote-unquote Special Period, and the deal gave them resources."
It also gave Cuba legal cover. For decades, the Cuban government had been sued repeatedly by its victims, from Gustavo Villoldo — an ex-CIA operative who helped hunt Che Guevara — to Aldo Vera, the former Havana police chief who fled to Puerto Rico and was shot in the back while plotting against Fidel. Another suit came from the family of Bobby Fuller, a former U.S. Marine and sugar plantation owner who was convicted of "counterrevolutionary activity" during a fifteen-minute trial and executed by a firing squad.
The three families won settlements totaling almost $4 billion. The Cuban government, however, denied that American courts had authority to collect. In all three cases, enterprising American lawyers tried to go after what little property Cuba has in the United States — including cigar trademarks. The Cuban government calls such attempts to seize its trademarks "absurd." So far, American judges have agreed with Havana.
Habanos' deal with Altadis complicated things even further. American courts have frequently ruled that Cuban assets — including cigar trademarks — can't be seized if they are produced in a partnership with a third country. (Altadis has since been bought by London-based Imperial Tobacco.)
But the Cuban government has also gone on the offensive in American courts.
For decades, Benny Gomez's father owned one of the finest cigar shops in Havana. Then he was thrown in prison during the revolution. He escaped to Miami in 1961, where Benny was born. After his old man's death in 2001, Gomez started a line of cigars called Casa Gomez in honor of his dad. He named one of them Havana Sunrise and tried to register it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He even registered the name in Cuba, but it didn't do him any good. The Cuban government revoked his trademark, and Habanos blocked him in American courts, claiming he couldn't call his cigars "Havana."
Gomez hired Herrera to fight the case, but it was just too much for one man with a company run out of a Florida garage. He gave up and changed his stogy's name. "You can't fight a government," Gomez says.
Pepe Montagne is trying. His own cigar ordeal began in 2002, when the Cuban government came after him, too. Montagne's family had lost its tobacco farms during the revolution, and his father had been thrown in prison. He had fled to Miami and founded Guantanamera Cigars in 1997. Four years later, he applied to register the name.
The Cuban government, however, had other ideas. In 2002, it launched its own line of Guantanamera cigars: a machine-rolled smoke that was smaller and cheaper than — and, frankly, inferior to — Montagne's. But when Habanos tried to register the name in the United States, it found Montagne had gotten there first.
For seven years, the two sides played tug-of-war in U.S. trademark court. On one side were Montagne and his attorney, Herrera, whose own family had lost its land to the Castros.
On the other side was the Cuban government and its American law firm, RBSKL. The firm has represented Cuba ever since its founder, legendary leftist lawyer Victor Rabinowitz, played chess with Che in 1960. Representing RBSKL on the Guantanamera case was David Goldstein, a high-powered attorney and former member of the Harvard Law Review.
"He's brilliant," Herrera says of his opponent, Goldstein. "And he's got a lot of money behind him. But there is no passion in it for him."
Herrera has no such problem. He calls Cuba a "bully" and argues that it has no standing in the U.S. courts, Clinton's exception be damned. "Habanos has gone after twenty mom-and-pop brands across the country," he says. "Many have defaulted simply because they don't have the money."
For Cuban-Americans like Montagne and Gomez, whose fathers were both imprisoned by the Cuban government, the legal battles aren't just unfair, Herrera argues. They are also insulting.
Goldstein declined to comment for this article. In court, however, his arguments are consistent: Names like Havana Sunrise and Guantanamera Cigars mislead American consumers into thinking the products come from Cuba.
So far, Goldstein has gotten the better of American judges. In 2009, shortly after Manuel García Morejón's deposition, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) ruled for Habanos. Herrera and Montagne appealed to the U.S. District Court in D.C. They won a partial victory when a judge ruled Habanos had failed to show that the American public would be deceived by Montagne's brand.
When the TTAB reheard the case, however, it again sided with Cuba. Montagne was crestfallen. "Frank and I have both suffered so much because of this," he says, pointing to his white hair. "When we started, I was blond!"
Herrera hasn't given up, though. Even if legal precedent is on his opponent's side, he's trying to convince judges that Cuba is a special case. His latest strategy is to trademark the name "Guantanamera" for coffee and rum. These goods are considered "related" to cigars and could help persuade the TTAB to side with Montagne.
Then there is the curious fate of Manuel García Morejón. The man whom Montagne once tried to pay to drop Cuba's lawsuit was convicted of stealing from the government he had so ardently defended. Morejón was arrested in August 2010, accused of secretly selling millions of Habanos cigars on the black market with other staffers. The scheme cost Cuba up to $3 billion. Morejón reportedly served a year under house arrest.
Herrera says Morejón's arrest hints at the corruption that could occur when the embargo ends, as when the Soviet Union fell apart. It also exposes the absurdity of the current situation.
"Habanos is making billions off of cigar rollers who get paid $8 per month," he says, noting that Morejón probably wasn't making much more than that amount — at least legally. "Here is a communist country going after American businessmen in American courts for trademark infringement...If you want to act like a capitalist, just be capitalist already."
With his guajiro hat and fat stogy snowing ash, Hirochi Robaina looked every bit the poster boy for the Cuban cigar industry. The grandson of Cuba's most famous cigar maker, Robaina had inherited the family business. Tonight, however, he was celebrating a personal achievement: the launch of his very own brand.
Robaina was the center of the party. "He puffed smoke rings, posed for photos, and clinked glasses with fellow aficionados. Boxes of HR cigars were selling like hotcakes — despite their $400 price tag.
When the cameras weren't flashing, however, Robaina looked a bit lost. The conversations around him were in English, and he didn't speak a word of it. This wasn't Pinar del Río, or even Havana. This was the very heart of American excess: Naples, Florida.
Robaina could be forgiven for feeling out of place. His December 12, 2014, visit was the first time one of Castro's cigar makers had visited the United States. Similarly, his new cigar was the first Robaina family product to hit American shelves since before the revolution.
"This is a big deal," said Marcus Daniel, whose cigar shop hosted Robaina. "We still have a trade embargo, but he's given his blessing to this cigar to represent their family legacy in America."
If any one figure frames the debate over what will happen with the demise of the embargo, it's Hirochi Robaina. To his fans, Robaina is a capitalist rebel whose U.S. tour is evidence that once-authoritarian Cuba is opening up. To his critics, however, he is just another of Castro's pawns: little more than an advertisement for the Cuban government's cigars, should the embargo end any time soon.
Either way, Robaina's story is proof that both U.S.-Cuba relations and the international cigar industry are experiencing profound changes. "The Cuban government is parading Robaina around America," Frank Herrera says. "It's a dog-and-pony show."
Robaina, who declined to be interviewed for this article, wasn't interested in tobacco at first. Born in 1976, he studied metallurgy, competed in judo, and flipped pizzas for a first job. When he was seventeen, however, his grandfather told him it was time to take up tobacco.
It was an offer Hirochi couldn't refuse. His grandfather, Alejandro Robaina, was nicknamed "the Godfather of Cuban tobacco." His Cuchillas de Barbacoa farm in Pinar del Río had produced the country's finest leaves since the 1800s. For his decades of service, Alejandro had been rewarded with his own brand, Vegas Robaina, and more autonomy than most Cuban businessmen.
So Hirochi went to work in a Havana factory. Later, he joined his grandpa on the farm, where he learned Alejandro's secrets until the old man died in 2010. Suddenly, Cuba's most famous plantation fell into the hands of a 34-year-old.
Cigar insiders expected the new leadership to bring changes. But few predicted the young Robaina would launch his own brand of cigars, let alone in the United States. Last year, Robaina partnered with Florida cigar company Cubanacan to craft a signature line of cigars in Estelí. That meant they could be sold in the States without violating the embargo.
To some in the industry, Robaina's new venture seems suspicious. Private businesses are still rare in Cuba, and in the government-controlled Cuban tobacco industry, such entrepreneurship is unprecedented. Some observers conclude that the Cuban government has backed Robaina's new brand — which would run afoul of the embargo.
Others believe the Cuban government is using Robaina as a "marketing strategy" ahead of the embargo's end, according to Charlie Minato, an editor for the cigar blog Halfwheel. By allowing Robaina to tour the United States and hawk his stogies, the regime builds its own brand for after the blockade.
"If the Cuban government did not like what Hirochi Robaina was doing, they would not let him come back into the country," Minato says.
But Colin Ganley, a former editor for Cigar Journal, says Robaina is no puppet. "Hirochi is very much a capitalist," he says, pointing to Robaina's brushes with Cuban police for selling his family's cigars on the black market. Rather, he says, Robaina has benefited from broader changes that have allowed more Cubans to travel. "There is nothing the Cuban government can do about his traveling. He has a passport."
For Herrera, Robaina's newfound freedom is a slap in the face to his clients who fled the island. "It's not like he said 'fuck you' to Cuba and left," Herrera says. "He goes back and forth as he pleases."
If Robaina's American cigar adventure represents a seismic shift in the tobacco industry, there are other tectonic rumbles as well. Thanks to the embargo, a strange standoff looms over the industry. Habanos currently holds the trademarks for its brands — Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Punch, Partagás, and others — around the world, except in the U.S., where those trademarks are split between two companies: General Cigars and Imperial Tobacco, which owns half of Habanos. When the embargo ends, consumers could be confronted by two versions of Romeo y Julieta cigars, made by affiliated companies that suddenly find themselves in competition.
Minato thinks that scenario won't happen. Instead, he believes Imperial will buy General, or vice versa. It could amount to a $50 billion hostile takeover. "There is a large belief that, rather than suing each other for the next fifteen years...over these 29 brands, one will just buy the other and make it easy," Minato says.
If that happens, the surviving company would have a monopoly over most major cigar brands in the States. Little guys, like Pepe Montagne and Skip Martin, would suffer.
Even established giants like José Padrón would be hit. And the bigger cigar companies already have a head start when it comes to using Cuban tobacco, Minato says.
"It would be foolish to assume that many, if not most, of the medium to large manufacturers haven't had access to some small amount of Cuban tobacco where they've played around with it to see what they would do if the embargo ends tomorrow," he says.
Skip Martin, a voluble former submariner from Texas, is part of a new generation of cigar makers in Estelí.
Michael E. Miller
"What cigars need is continuity," José Orlando Padrón says. At 88 years old, he is the definition of the word. His eyes are shot and his voice is ashen, but he still flies around his warehouse, albeit now with the assistance of a bright-red Rascal scooter. He still loves to talk — about travel and tobacco and especially that time he sat down with Fidel. And he still smokes cigars, of course. Four or five a day.
"The blend always needs to be the same," he says, pulling on one of his own stogies. "The worst thing you can do is change things up."
But change is coming to the cigar industry. And American cigar makers, including Padrón, must adapt to the new reality. Some may not survive.
Sitting in a conference room next to his son, Jorge, however, Don Orlando isn't worried. "There is a chance we could see some good Cuban tobacco arrive here in the U.S. any day now," he rasps. "But that doesn't bother me. We are ready to compete."
For decades, the Padróns have tried to stay out of politics — even when negotiating the release of Fidel's prisoners. Even when bombs were blowing up outside their front door. Even when their factories were being burned to the ground. But for Jorge, Cuba is an inviting prospect.
"We look at it more as an opportunity than new competition," he says. "If the embargo falls, it should be an equal playing field so we can have a chance to go into Cuba and obtain Cuban tobacco."
It's a refrain heard from many American cigar makers. Skip Martin believes the benefits of a post-embargo Cuba outweigh the risks. Although occasional cigar smokers will rush out to try Cubans, seasoned smokers have already had them.
"Hardcore cigar smokers are not waiting for Cuban cigars to become legal," he says. "They are waiting for guys like me to use Cuban tobacco in my blends."
If anyone is at risk, it's small or medium-sized Cuban-American cigar makers, many of them located in Miami: guys like Benny Gomez and Pepe Montagne, whose Cuban-style cigars could get lost in a flood of stogies straight off the island.
"The sexiness of all that new product coming is going to blow them out of the market," Frank Herrera says.
The picture is bleakest for cigar makers, like Montagne, who have ongoing trademark battles with the Cuban government. Cuba now produces more than 33 million of its cheap, machine-made Guantanamera cigars every year, mostly for the Asian market. In fact, the thin cigars are now Habanos' top seller.
Montagne makes only 150,000 per year. When the embargo ends, his brand could get buried by its Cuban counterpart. If that happens, Herrera says, he'll sue Habanos.
"If the embargo drops and they do come in here, they will go after Pepe," he says. "But we'll go to a jury. Let's see who in Miami is going to side with the Cuban government over my client."
For Montagne, the issue goes beyond his own business. Beyond cigars, even. It's about what it means to be Cuban.
"Castro treats Cuba like the whole thing is his farm," he says. "The Cuban government tells me I can't call my cigars Guantanamera. What am I, Chinese? I can't even use my own country's names!"
Even Montagne has hope, however. On a cool Friday evening in January, he ushers a reporter into the back of his Calle Ocho store, lights a Guantanamera, and says he has good news. He pulls a red-and-gray cigar box out of a hiding place. Its lid is emblazoned with three letters: MGM.
"You know who owns this?" he says with a smile. "Manuel García Morejón sent me a message from Cuba. He wants to come here to Miami. And he wants to give me tips on how to win my court case."
He takes a drag and watches the smoke drift toward the street, where Miami glows in all its sloppy neon glory.
"It's funny. He was my enemy, and now he wants to be my friend," Montagne says. "It's because in Cuba, nobody believes in the system."
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